Welcome to another edition of Jazz Club, where we touch upon several classic records and a handful of newer albums that are handily carrying the torch. This week, we wanted to explore the idea of a “classic” jazz record, specifically regarding this question: were some jazz standards always thought of as highly as they are today? The answer is a pretty resounding no; as with any genre, many of the records now considered essential were once earth-shattering, jimmy-rustling affairs that either puzzled or repulsed music critics and fans. Today, we’re going to take a look back at three of the most controversial records in the genre, all of which redefined the genre in some way and received quite a bit of flack for it, before eventually leaving a lasting imprint on the shape of jazz to come (hint hint).
Jimmy Mullett: I think it’s worth taking into account that not all the albums mentioned are going to be equally controversial in the public eye. Nowadays, all three are viewed as hugely important to the evolution of jazz, but at one time or another they were either disregarded with some intense animosity, or, in the case of our last entry, somewhat ignored.
Scott Murphy: That’s very true. And also, before we start, I had a quick qualifying question to ask you, James: can controversy be an indicator of eventual acceptance? With our second pick especially, the terms “controversial” and “ground-breaking” are both almost always used in describing it. Obviously not all controversial albums will have a lasting impact (jazz example: Kenny G), but I do think it’s safe to say that albums that a lot of truly impactful albums were initially rejected to some degree.
Jimmy: I guess controversy in music can, and in many cases, does, act as a beacon for high acclaim down the road. But I’m not really sure we can make that judgment definitively. Hindsight’s 20/20, you know? I feel like it’s an answer that relies more on the zeitgeist than anything else. Musicians can obviously change the tide of music for the future, but ultimately it’s up to how we view it as a society.
Miles Davis – On the Corner
Jimmy: So, Scott, let’s go to our first one, shall we? And you’ve been listening to this album a lot of late, right?
Scott: I have indeed, J2, being On the Corner by Miles Davis. I had his electric period on my mind after our last Jazz Club, and I decided to snag a cheap copy at Newbury Comics on my way home from work. It’s quickly become one of my favorite Miles albums; the almost krautrock inspired structuring of the drums provides a driving pace for Miles and the gang to funk and freewheel wherever they damn well please. It wasn’t as much of a challenging listen for me today as it was back in the day, but honestly, I couldn’t help but wonder why this album was so controversial. If Miles had dropped On the Corner right after, say, Kind of Blue, I could definitely see the lash back. But considering it followed In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Live-Evil, the album just doesn’t feel like that huge of a leap, in my view, even by past standards.
Jimmy: Well, I think it probably had to do with that krautrock-sounding influence that you spoke of. I’m a little loathe to count it as “krautrock,” just because Miles had a lot of different influences and a shit-ton of ideas about how to construct this album, but nonetheless, there is that constant beat that’s around for Miles and his contributors to go to town with, so to speak. While I don’t necessarily think of it as controversial, I can absolutely see how much of a change it was from Bitches Brew or any of the other electric albums he’d released previously. With those albums, Miles and his producer Teo Marcero essentially recorded handfuls of essentially improvised moments, and then spliced the recordings around. On the Corner is the same, but there’s more of a constant feel to it; while Bitches Brew sort of went at its own pace, almost like some sort of jazz fusion sound collage, On the Corner brought back some structure. Again, I’m not sure how that’s controversial, but the evidence from that time period, from Rolling Stone reviews to general critical analysis, is overwhelmingly negative.
Scott: I agree that it was definitely a change, but I don’t think his deviation matched the amount of hate it got. Though, to be fair, its reputation has had quite the 180 since it’s an initial release, which begs the question: what makes critics flip so strongly? With albums like Discovery by Daft Punk, I think popular appeal had a lot to do with it. Pitchfork gave it a lukewarm score when it first came out, but then it became massively popular and they ended up ranking it 3rd on their top 200 albums of the Noughties. But moving back to Miles, is popular appeal really a thing to be sited for its eventual acceptance? Or is it something else (as I suspect)?
Jimmy: I’m not sure if the concept of popular appeal can apply to jazz as much as it does other genres. At one time that was relevant, but those days have long since passed, even around the time On The Corner came out. I think that it is something else, like you said. I personally consider it to be the influence that it had on so many other genres, including electronic music in general, along with the eventual realization by fans that there was something more to it than what they were hearing, sort of like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, as we’ll later discuss. But that brings up some big questions: first of all, just because an album is influential doesn’t mean its good. If you want to shift the focus for a brief second to film, you could say that a campy cult movie (Rocky Horror Picture Show comes to mind, or maybe even Black Dynamite) is influential, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good. Second, why would it take so long for people to reverse their opinion on an album like this? Shouldn’t the reaction towards On The Corner be a little more mixed rather than overtly negative? I’m not sure we can really answer either question, but I consider these ideas to be necessary to how we view On The Corner today.
Scott: I think it’s easier to discern those details in today’s climate, since most musical discourse happens online and is much more easy to track and analyze. Regardless, I’m a huge fan of this record and feel it fits in perfectly well within his electric era albums.
Jimmy: Agreed; I remember first listening to it and not being a huge fan, but I think it’s an album that, like Bitches Brew (and the Electric Era in general), needs some time to fully digest. Listening to it again, it’s probably my favorite from the Electric Era, if only because of the resurgence in structure, and the interesting take Miles has on electronics, like on “Black Satin.”
Ornette Coleman – Free Jazz
Scott: Now, in terms of Ornette Coleman, there’s really no mystery as to why his music was controversial. Like, at all. I wobbled between picking Shape of Jazz to Come and Free Jazz for this segment, but ultimately sided with the latter since it coined the name of such a divisive jazz subgenre. Even people I know who are huge jazz fans can’t get into “freer” stuff like Coleman .
Jimmy: I’m glad I’m not the only one who had a hard time deciding between Shape and Free Jazz; I actually decided to put both on the playlist just because of how damn important both are. And, yes, you speak of a schism between jazz fans over Free Jazz, and I can definitely understand why it’s as such. Free improvisation was sort of the next natural step of jazz, but approaching it can be like running down a flat path only to have to jump off a cliff at the end. What I’ve always found a bit ironic, though, is how Miles Davis was insanely critical of Ornette, yet essentially did the same thing. I feel like he needed to justify the genre for himself, or interpret it his own way, but still, it has a distinct hypocritical flavor to it.
Scott: I was actually surprised to find out Miles wasn’t a fan of Coleman. Considering how Miles is known for continuously pushing the boundaries of jazz, you’d think he’d at least support Coleman for that principle alone.
Jimmy: I really think that it was more of an ego thing. Not to get off track, but he wasn’t a fan of Freddie Hubbard’s playing either, despite having a very similar approach to hard bop during the Quintet albums, among many others. But, onto Ornette. Scott, what comes to you first when you put on Free Jazz?
Scott: I first listened to Free Jazz after he passed away, and to prepare for our Jazz Club covering his career and style. While I enjoyed what I heard then, I didn’t actually appreciate the album fully until I bought it on vinyl at a small record store in Portland (vinyl nerd jizz break: original gatefold with Jackson Pollock die cut, and in wicked solid condition). I put it on the turntable when no one else was home and turned up my stereo to max volume, and it made such a huge difference. It enhanced the absolute cacophony of the album, and truly helped me appreciate just how powerful it must have felt for these guys to literally play whatever they want as intensely as they could manage. I would never fault anyone for disliking the album, but it’s easily one of the most important jazz records ever recorded and one of my personal favorites.
Jimmy: Is there a section of it that speaks to you more than others? Or do you like how it develops over time?
Scott: I’m partial to the way it collapses into itself and lets the drums play some subdued chaos before the whole ensemble explodes again. But honestly, absorbing the piece as a whole is how I prefer to listen to it and how I feel it should be heard.
Jimmy: I absolutely agree with that statement. I previously compared this sort of style of music to sound collage, and in a way I feel like it fits more aptly than I originally thought. You can’t simply look at a certain section of a statue to understand it; you have to experience it in its entirety.
Scott: Couldn’t agree more. That kind of goes back to our discussion before about accessibility when it comes to free jazz: while I think listening to the whole album is worth it, it’s hard to deny that doing so is an investment of time and patience (depending on your musical preference).
Jimmy: Oh, yeah, you can’t count that out. I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that truly enjoying music requires great sacrifice on one’s own part. It’s one thing to listen to an album and it’s another to experience it. And I’ll be one to admit that I don’t do the latter as often as I’d like. On the side of Ornette, though, I’ve always found the first half of Free Jazz to be particularly titillating, since it retains so much jazz. I mean, that should go without saying, considering its name, but compared to what Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders would be doing not long after, there’s a distinct jazziness to this album; if you went through the album with an audio editor, you could take out all the atonal parts and essentially have a regular jazz album, despite it being a completely improvised performance.
Scott: That’s a great point; a lot of Ornette’s other albums (Change of the Century comes to mind) have very obvious jazz roots, and often times feel more like a regular record with edge than a hugely experimental statement. I feel that Free Jazz is firmly avant-garde, but like you said, it’s undeniably jazz.
Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Monk Trio
Jimmy: Well, our last album is undeniably jazz, but perhaps not exactly what we’d think of when we think of “controversial” albums. However, Thelonious Sphere Monk was indeed an outlier when it came to jazz. His approach to the piano felt as if it was too soon and too late, with what almost sounds like ragtime and cool jazz put together. Except, that to even compare Monk to that sound is really not giving his musicianship what it deserves.
Scott: Yeah, when Jimmy suggested this as our third choice, I knew we’d definitely have to spend the most time explaining why it was so controversial. As you were explaining to me, Jimmy, Monk was a major force in the transition of jazz from a commercial medium into and art form. As odd as it may seem to think today, jazz was essentially synonymous with pop music back in the day. Monk’s approach to piano and the genre helped begin its elevation to the “high-class” art form it’s generally seen as today. (Sidenote: Seriously, almost every time a non-fan hears me listening to jazz, the first thing they say is how I’m acting all intellectual).
Jimmy: Actually, I think that was Charlie Parker I was talking about, but Monk certainly brought his own…distinction…into the jazz world. His use of atonality and his phrasing brought something into American jazz that had never been heard before, and, arguably, haven’t been heard since. This album we’re talking about—the self-titled Thelonious Monk Trio album—is technically Monk’s debut album, and already you can see that he’s sort of an anomaly. While a musician like Charlie Parker was out there, but was forward thinking, Monk was just out there. Honestly, outlier is the best word to describe him. But, why do we consider this controversial? In comparison to On The Corner or Free Jazz, it doesn’t seem like much, but in Monk’s time (around the 1950s) this was something that really hadn’t been heard. Jazz wasn’t supposed to be dissonant; it was mellifluous. Rhythm was more traditional. But Monk sort of just did his own thing, playing his piano like it was both an melodic and rhythmic instrument. Scott, what did you find most interesting about this album? I know you haven’t had a lot of time with it, and this is pretty much your first introduction to Monk, so I’d like to hear what you think about it.
Scott: Well, I obviously come close to receiving it the way it was back in the day. Unlike On the Corner and (especially) Free Jazz, I had to focus a lot harder on what was such a game changer about the album. Focusing on the year (1954) helped, but I think Monk’s playing helped me the most. He and Bill Evans play differently, but Monk reminded me of Evans in that he plays piano in exactly my favorite style. For me, piano can either be incredibly emotive or as clean and sanitized as any instrument can be. Monk’s playing has an innate introspection to it; I feel like I’m listening to musical dialogue rather than something composed to be the next jazz smash.
Jimmy: That’s a cool way of viewing it; I have to agree with you on pianists; I’ve found it tough to like that smoothness that seems to accompany a lot of contemporary jazz, like GoGo Penguin and Keith Jarrett. I think it’s funny that you even put Monk and Evans in the same boat at all, though I get why: they’re both able to basically put their soul into those keys. The big question, though, is phrasing. Monk’s phrasing is always a huge aspect of his playing. What did you think of that?
Scott: He kind of straddles the line between playing loose and having razor sharp focus. It’s like he knows exactly what he wants to play, but what he wants to play is whatever the fuck he wants. Take “Blue Monk” for example: so many times I thought I knew exactly where the melody was going, and then he’d flit in one direction or other, while still tying it all together so it makes sense and sounds great.
Jimmy: Man, I wish I could listen to it with new ears again. I’ve honestly listened to this album so many times (it’s probably my favorite jazz album ever) that I sort of know every bend and curve he’s going to take. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still great, but I get what you mean, that there’s almost a schizophrenic way to his playing, which, in fact, might have been true, as doctors actually thought he might have had schizophrenia. Probably my favorite thing about listening to this album, though, is hearing him yell amidst all the music. You’ve got to admire unbridled passion like that.
Scott: Oddly enough, Keith Jarrett does the same thing on his live album Nude Ants, which I bought the other day because it was cheap and has a LOT of music. And mixed in with his clean playing, all the random shouting seems oddly out of place. But with Monk, it just makes sense. It fits and, like you said, literally screams passion.
Jimmy: Right? Well, any last words on our pal Thelonious?
Scott: Great fucking name, man; one of the best names in jazz. No, but seriously, I’m glad you picked Monk to round out our list. I should have listened to him ages ago, and I’m glad I finally did.
Jimmy: Nice, man! And, yes, he has probably the single best name in jazz music. I mean, who else would have Sphere has a middle name? I think, to note again, though, this isn’t controversial by today’s standards, but back then jazz wasn’t as fleshed out; musicians hadn’t really begun to stretch and play with it as much. But jazz has been irreparably changed by Monk, whether you like it or not. And I mean that in the best way possible.
Scott: Alright, well we can chalk this up as another successful installment. as always, we’ve included a Spotify playlist below. Stay tuned for our next Jazz Club, where we’ll be discussing a new release that’s good good, not bad.